A Harbored Notion

August 4, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 10 9 min read


I have long harbored the notion, no doubt foolishly, that incarceration wouldn’t be all that particularly bad. To the contrary. It would give me time to catch up on my reading. In this fanciful scenario I place myself in a minimum security facility. Anything other than that and the advantages quickly disappear. It was in prison that Genet discovered Proust. Edmund White relates that Genet once arrived late to the weekly prison book exchange and was resigned to the picked-over shelves. Proust had been summarily rejected by all the other prisoners. He took the book, read the opening: “For a long time I would go to bed early.” then shut it, savoring it. “Now I’m tranquil,” he said to himself. “I know I’m going to go from marvel to marvel.” That is how it seems to me prison would be: tranquil and full of good reads. Marvel to marvel. Indeed, self-proclaimed “Prison Writer” Kenneth Hartman notes, “In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can’t conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.”

There are many prison reading projects. There is a Great Books Prison Project and a Prisoners’ Reading Encouragement Project, Books Behind Bars project. Prison literacy programs abound. As they should. Recidivism rates lower in accord with inmate education. This begs the question of what I’d be doing in prison in the first place, being educated and well-read enough to presumably know better. Obviously, I must be a victim of a trumped up charge. And one I would not necessarily quibble with, assuming the prison library was sufficiently stocked and I had time available. I wouldn’t want to waste valuable reading time in prison making license plates. That goes without saying.

It was the Bible that saved souls in the England of the Industrial Revolution, so into the prisons they flowed. Eventually other books were brought in, and, oddly, coded so that the criminal library was distinct from the debtor’s library, the Catholic from the Protestant, prompting some prisoners to switch religions in favor of the better stocked library. To this last point, Janet Fyfe, a scholar who has spent some time studying the history of prison libraries shares that Dundalk Prison, in Ireland, inventoried only religious books, separated by creed. “This is because when they were mixed…prisoners would profess themselves as of whatever creed would yield them the best selection of books!”

Whereas, Genet discovered Proust in prison, William Sydney Porter discovered O. Henry. Porter, while working as a bank teller at the First National Bank of Austin, in Houston, was accused of embezzling several thousand dollars. He fled the country, returning years later to visit his dying wife. He was picked up and thrown in the slammer. It was there he assumed the pen name O. Henry. He was released after three years and died in 1910 with just 33 cents to his name. O. Henry lives on. If there is any credibility to the immortality of the arts, he invested the absconded funds well.

Reading and writing go hand-in-glove. Many readers remain readers only. But seldom does a writer not read. There are, of course, exceptions. E.B. White once commented that he “was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read.” This disappoints me, White being a favorite writer. Perhaps he would have been well served to do a little time in the big house, though one can hardly argue with either the quality or the quantity of his work. (I will resist the temptation to prison-riff on his marvelous collection of essays, One Man’s Meat.)

coverI recall the movie, Sabrina, the original 1954 Billy Wilder version, starting Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. The tag line to the movie was, “the chauffeur’s daughter who learned her stuff in Paris!” Sabrina’s father, played by John Williams, is the chauffeur. What is so remarkable about the character of the chauffeur is that he chose the profession because it would afford him time to read. It seems a remarkable decision in this day to parlay to the screen, in an age when reading seems so off-center of life choices to so vastly many. I am still amazed when I consider this idea, of a life carved out of reading, And even more astounding, that a screenwriter employed the motif. Dad’s great line in the movie, delivered to his daughter Sabrina, is, “He’s still David Larrabee [William Holden], and you’re still the chauffeur’s daughter. And you’re still reaching for the moon.” To which she smartly replied, “No, father. The moon is reaching for me.” Being a chauffeur and reading during curbside breaks appears a sure winner over doing time.

Two of my literary heroes, Michel de Montaigne and Henry David Thoreau, enjoyed a self-imposed prison cell, as it were, in pursuit of their discipline. Montaigne retired to the tower of his family castle in Bordeaux. It was 1571, February 28, his thirty-eighth birthday. Above his library, he had inscribed on the ceiling Pliny’s remark: “There is nothing certain but uncertainty, and nothing more miserable and arrogant than man.” One scholar, writing of Montaigne in his tower, entitled his dissertation, The Prison-House of Writing. Montaigne said he was intent on spending the second half of his life studying the Myself of the first half. A man requires a prison cell to accomplish such things–or a castle tower in Bordeaux. His library was well stocked with what we would today call the classics. It was, in essence, the rediscovery of these works, the Greeks in particular, which fueled the Renaissance, of which Montaigne was a bleeding-edge participant.

coverHenry David too, famously, went into a loose-knit confined self-exile. His cabin cost him $28 and 12 ½ cents and measured ten feet by fifteen feet, more than twice the size of “Prison Writer” Ken Hartman’s cell. He moved to his cabin at Walden Pond July 4, 1845. He was 28. Thoreau was not at Walden to read, per se. He was seeking solitude. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” he wrote. Like Montaigne, Thoreau was a reader of classic literature, preferring, the original Greek or Latin. He recorded that at Walden he had a copy of The Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu story of Lord Krishna, a selection perhaps not unusual for the quintessential American Transcendentalist. He warned against relying too much on literature as a means of transcendence and found the common literature of the day annoyingly unsophisticated. There is that famous night he spent in jail, in protest of poll taxes, used as a means to finance efforts with which he disagreed, specifically slavery and the American-Mexican War. I am uncertain as to whether he had anything to read in his cell. When Emerson visited him in jail, the poet asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” He lived at Walden two years, two months and two days. I was reminded of this once, while traveling in Tibet. Peering up a Himalayan cliff I spotted the pitched cave of a meditating monk, a receding dark mouth agape against the bleached crag face. I was told that a monk, in order to become a lama, must meditate in solitude for three years, three months and three days. It does not feel at all awkward to think of Thoreau as an American lama. To the contrary. Years later, on his deathbed Thoreau’s last words were, “Indian…moose.”

The other thing about prison I deem appealing is the apparent outright lack of responsibility required. Like travel, incarceration should afford one the relief of worrying about one’s obligations. There is no grass to cut presumably, rent to pay or dinner to prepare. The roof is not in disrepair, nor do the windows need replacing. I don’t want to minimize the experience, but on one level it seems a stupidly idyllic existence.  There are many things Thoreau has taught me, perhaps most famously, his admonition to, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” If one could really learn this lesson–easier said than done–one could avoid prison altogether, as well as avoid the roof and the window, the grass and possibly walking the dog. A simple existence should be devoid of most of the existential trappings that call for our attention and sap our energies. To this end, I made a list not long ago of things I deemed wasteful of my time and things I deemed worthy of my time. Philosophically, I am more interested in understanding what is possible than understanding what is true. Consequently, my list made no accommodation for the niggling things one is compelled to do. You can be compelled to do something, but it still be a waste of time. If it’s a waste time maybe you should either 1.) drop your compulsion, 2.) become a monk, or 3.) simplify. One entry on my list that made it to both columns, the waste of time column and the worthy column, was technology. This is a reminder that life cannot always be so easily parsed or simplified. Sometimes a thing is a plus and a minus simultaneously. That is itself a complexity one would be well served to better understand.

I have determined that in prison I would not want an electronic book reader. Putting aside the possible problems with downloading books through the thick prison walls, an electronic reader would not keep me company. Books keep me company. They warm me with their presence on cold winter nights and their iridescent bright spines bring me joy on balmy summer mornings. I would want them as my companions in my prison abode. As a young man I used to want my shelves full because the books in place there spoke to my intelligence. Now I understand that its not the evidence of intelligence I seek, but intelligence itself. That is something altogether different and is itself, I hope, a sign of the intelligence I seek. Regardless, books would warm up the cell nicely.

I understand that when you go to prison you walk in with just the clothes on your back. But they don’t stay your clothes for long. You are issued correct attire for occasion, again simplifying things. For argument’s sake, it is a worthy exercise to ask yourself what books you would take with you, if you could. It is similar to the parlor game–now there is an antiquated notion–of asking what you would take from your burning home if you just had two minutes to escape the flames. What would be worse than going to an English prison 150 years ago and discovering that the only books available were dusty religious tomes? Perhaps that was the redeeming intention of punishment by incarceration. If the rules changed and one could bring, say, five books, what would they be? It is an intensely personal question and I suggest you take it up for consideration. Likewise, when traveling, which books make it to your carry-on? Consider for a moment, should the plane have to ditch over an expanse of water and you were to end up on a deserted island with nothing but the contents of your pockets and your carry-on. It would be a pity should your books sink to the depths in the fuselage belly along with your neatly folded underwear. It could happen.

coverOscar Wilde was imprisoned at Reading Gaol (Reading!) after committing the federal crime of “gross indecency.” He was 41. There he wrote De Profundis (From the Depths) which included these sentences:

…I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world… And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.

Reading this, it would appear that prison had the desired effect on Wilde. He fled England upon release and never returned.

I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest and K2, as well as a host of other peaks. He spends a lot of time at elevation in a tent acclimatizing, manufacturing red blood cells. I once asked him how he entertains himself while waiting weeks until a summit push. He reads, he told me. He said that reading is a “zone activity” for him. He was referring to the notion of a mental state whereby a person is so fully immersed in what he is doing, in his case reading, that time ceases and energy is focused. You sometimes hear of “being in the zone,” or achieving a state of flow, in relation to sports.

A zen master once told me that flow is akin to enlightenment, a state of consciousness where everything is at once realized yet not transformed. I like the sound of that very much, but I cannot tell you what it means.

Prison cells. Towers in Bordeaux. Cabins in the woods, and tents on the sides of mountains. At work behind the scene is the argument that life can be forced into an edifying and redeeming corner. It is a persuasive, if not compelling notion: That when everything is lost or set aside or taken from you, only then do you have the opportunity to do what it is you truly wish to do, to review your list of what is worthy and what is wasteful. The theme rings true. “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.” I never grow tired of this quote. Thoreau’s desire to live deliberately resonates and is at the heart of Socrates’ observation that the unexamined life is not worth living. Although I cannot personally attest to its efficacy, it carries weight that I suggest prison a good thing because it would strip one of everything extraneous. Extraneous to reading, of course.

About Doug: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. His blog,...the house I live in…, can be read at: www.thehouseilivein.me


  1. I have a similar off-kilter fantasy about mental institutions. The protagonists of sad-girl memoirs/novels always seem to be quite well read.

  2. The Wilde quotation actually reminds me of a line from a Smiths song:

    “There’s more to life than books. But not much more.”

  3. Doug, kudos for one of the most enjoyable essays I’ve read on this site in the year I’ve been coming here. BTW, there are some uniformed men outside waiting to talk to you; something about last year’s taxes …

  4. David – Thank you for the praise, very high, indeed. The Millions has a lot of wonderful stuff, so I’m particularly glad my essay resonated with you. And now, the matter at hand: Where the hell did I put my shredder?

  5. Really, really nice essay…
    A prison and a dream state have some similarities.
    A good book can make either clearer or not clearer.

    Life is a good book. But only some can write good books, and dreams..are like prisons..and prisons are like dreams.

  6. Wonderful piece — thoughtful, smart. And of course the realization that one longs for a literal prison is evidence, mostly, of the fact that you’re already serving time in an abstract one.

  7. I remember once I took a basic law class in high school, and we had a field trip to the county prison. When we got a chance to talk to prisoners I asked them about their library. Everyone there looked at me like I had three heads. I thought it was a very practical question; I wanted to know what I’d have to work with if I ever screwed up and landed in jail for some reason.

    But my big seclusion fantasy is to have a house deep in the country in Nova Scotia where I could just hole myself up all winter to read and write.

    Lovely article. I’ve been meaning to read “Walden” for years. Now it’s going to the top of my list.

  8. As a Peace Corps volunteer I spent two years in a remote Bulgarian village. I had minimal internet and phone access and way too much time on my hands. I was particularly unoccupied in winter, when it seemed like no one left their homes except for work. Fortunately, I had access to the Peace Corps library – a small room in the basement of the main office where volunteers left books for others to take or borrow. In two years I read over 200 books. The list includes War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, The Golden Bowl, Gravity’s Rainbow and so many other truly great books. It was a challenging and often lonely time in my life, but having the freedom to spend so much time immersed in books was something wonderful.

    So, instead of prison… consider the Peace Corps!

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.